An archaeologist’s perspective on COVID-19
By Stephanie Martin, Ph.D. Candidate
I study disaster responses in the archaeological record, and watching this crisis unfold has brought many research themes into my daily experience. I spend a lot of time thinking about multi-scalar responses, decision-making under devastating circumstances, and resilience, and here’s how I have been viewing COVID-19 responses through the lens of archaeology and disaster response.
Archaeologists disagree about the impact of complex social structures on disaster response. On the one hand, advanced infrastructure, ample food supplies, and redistribution systems associated with high-levels of complexity should ensure that aid can be dispersed quickly to mitigate losses. On the other hand, complicated and hierarchical levels of administration effectively limit flexibility and speed in responses with sometimes disastrous results. Such was the case during the Vesuvius eruption of AD 79 when Herculaneum residents fled to the beach, waiting and hoping for a rescue response that never came. And such is the case now: as the novel coronavirus began spreading in the U.S., we waited but a federal response never came.
We have been hindered not only by a lack of instruction and communication from the federal government, but also by the spread of self-serving misinformation. After precious days and weeks spent waiting for directives, mayors and governors began responding individually. Hopefully these local efforts will prove impactful in the coming months. Yet it is undeniable that responses were slower than they should have been as local officials waited for direction from the White House.
The delay effectively erased the advantages of our complex society. Our production of medical equipment has exceeded max capacity. Our infrastructure and ability to get these items where they are needed is over-taxed. Our hospitals and health care systems have been hobbled, and now the United States has the highest number of confirmed cases, and possibly has the 3rd highest number of COVID-19 related deaths, if global reporting is accurate (as of April 9, https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/cases-updates/index.html). It is clear that our systemic responses must change if we are to be more resilient to such an event in the future.
Unsurprisingly, this crisis has prompted a wide array of individual responses, as is typical during disasters. To look again at the AD 79 eruption of Vesuvius, some residents fled early and were saved, while others never left and perished. Some who chose self-evacuation grabbed as many valuables as they could carry before departing, while others locked everything away and ran with only a set of keys. Today, we have seen responses ranging from denial and flippancy (such as hosting large house parties), to mean-spirited disdain (there are at least two instances where individuals were arrested after coughing/breathing on someone in public and making a “joke” that they had COVID-19), to abject fear and panic (TP hoarders, I’m looking at you). The first two categories I can neither relate to nor comment on, except to say that they are deeply upsetting. Regarding the fear, panic, and hoarding, I do have some thoughts.
We can (almost) all relate to these emotions right now. Things are scary. After going to the store this week and unloading my groceries from the car, I piled the bags by my front door and stared at them, frozen with indecision. Do I wipe everything down with disinfectant? Surely not. Do I bring clean containers from inside my house and repackage everything before it comes inside? That must be overkill. But if I bring everything inside, am I carrying the virus into my house? I settled for removing all the items from the bags outside and just bringing the items in, feeling ridiculous every time I emptied a bag on the porch.
Disasters make people behave irrationally, like my half-baked attempt at preventing contaminates from entering my house on groceries. This irrational behavior is rooted in fear and uncertainty, but also in the complete lack of familiarity with this scenario. Disaster response in the archaeological record has been shown to be most effective in communities that have experienced similar disasters, lived through it, and preserved successful responses either in written records or in oral history and myth, like Pele the volcano goddess in Hawaii, or myths of a “wave that eats people” from the Andaman Islands where tsunamis regularly pose a threat.
Fortunately, a global pandemic of this proportion is unknown to everyone alive today. In living memory, nothing else compares, so people are responding by analogy. In a similar scenario where you might be stranded at home—a blizzard or a severe hurricane—the threats are losing power and water, and feeding your family at home for several days. And what do you need in such an instance? Bottled water, toilet paper, pantry staples: exactly what was emptied out of stores when this began, even though we were assured (in many locations) that utilities would not be shut off, and that grocery stores would remain open and available. So there is no logical reason to hoard pantry staples and toilet paper—and yet, reasoning by analogy accounts for these behaviors. Am I still mad because I can’t find flour to maintain my two-year-old sourdough starter, or a single bottle of hand soap to restock my legitimately empty dispensers? You bet. But understanding these behaviors as people’s way of responding by analogy to an utterly unfamiliar scenario softens the blow a little.
Even more helpful for soothing my anger at my fellow humans, however, is the overflowing of love, support, solidarity, and resilience. People are helping one another. Cultural institutions are offering free resources to keep people entertained. Individuals who can are supporting local businesses as they struggle to stay afloat without daily in-house customers. Media outlets have attempted to limit the spread of misinformation. There are still severe consequences; millions of people are suffering losses whether of loved ones or of jobs. But we are adapting. We are trying to keep things running, to recover some sort of functionality. We are showing our strength and our resilience. We are in this together, and so in solidarity we must and we will stay apart.